The Kindergarten Decisions: To Redshirt or Not

Should we redshirt Marco?

[NOTE: This is the second in a five-part series on the decisions parents face as their child approaches kindergarten age. The first article is an overview.]

My oldest son Marco will be five in July. When parents of his preschool classmates hear this, they often ask me if we’re going to send him to kindergarten this fall.

That question struck me as odd the first few times I heard it. Were these people saying Marco is “slow?” When I was growing up, we labeled a kid who didn’t go to kindergarten the first year he was eligible “held back,” and the connotation of this term was not kind. “Oh, he’s held back!” That’s what we said about the kids that were a little bigger and dumber.

Today, we have a new term for holding back a kid – “redshirting.” There’s no longer much of a social stigma attached to being a redshirted kid. Four decades ago, 96% of children six or above were enrolled in grade one or above. In 2005, that figure was 84%, with much lower figures in affluent areas. Redshirting used to be for kids that had serious problems that prevented them from handling kindergarten, but it has shifted to a strategy for parents who won’t be happy unless their kids perform at the top of their kindergarten class. In some kindergarten classes, the youngest kid was born in May or June. Meanwhile, the “cutoff” birthday – i.e. the birthday after which the school district mandates that the child be put into the following year’s kindergarten – is usually sometime in the fall.

So, what are the merits of redshirting? In this article, I’ll answer this question from two different perspectives: 1) academic advantages, and 2) the moral consequences of redshirting.

Academic Advantages of Redshirting
In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shows that Canadian hockey players with birthdays just after the January 1 junior hockey cutoff tend to do significantly better not only in junior hockey, but in the NHL as well. In other words, being the oldest player in a junior hockey cohort confers an advantage throughout the junior league, and even into professional hockey. (You can find data and more analysis on this effect here.) Gladwell conjectures that because the youngest junior league players are bigger and tend to do the best, they get special attention in those younger years that creates an advantage that endures well after their physical advantage is dissipated.

Parents have embraced this example as proof that kindergarten redshirting confers permanent advantages to children throughout their academic and working careers.

However, research on this issue has not yielded such a clear result. Deborah Stipek, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, published the definitive report on the advantages of redshirting. The report, entitled, “At What Age Should Children Enter Kindergarten? A Question for Policy Makers and Parents,” finds that there is a slight advantage for older children in the early grades, but this advantage dissipates after a few years, well before middle school. So, parents who are interested in comparing their children with other children in first in second grade would find reasons to redshirt, but others who care much more about the later years would not.

Stipek stresses that all five-year-olds, regardless of exact maturation level, benefit from schooling. In her conclusion, she makes a plea for schools to be ready for the children they admit, rather than asking parents to prepare their five-year-olds for a certain level of “kindergarten readiness.”

I must say that I am a bit suspicious of Stipek’s finding that there is absolutely no long-term advantage to redshirting, yet my wife and I have still decided to send Marco to kindergarten this fall. Why? The answer is the moral consequences of redshirting.

Moral Consequences of Redshirting
Children who are redshirted have a built-in advantage over children who are not redshirted because they’re older. Especially in the early years, even six or twelve months makes a big difference in terms of cognitive, emotional, social, and physical maturation.

Redshirting is analogous to kids on ADHD drugs or kids whose parents who have donated handsomely to a university. Kids who take ADHD drugs but aren’t really ADHD have a built-in advantage in concentrating. Kids whose parents are big donors of a university have a built-in advantage in getting into that university.

My fundamental problem with redshirting Marco, who is not seriously missing any developmental minimums for kindergarten, is that doing so would make him like the kid taking ADHD drugs who doesn’t need them or the child of deep-pockets donors. He would always think of himself as age-privileged, so he could never be certain if his accomplishments relative to other kids at school were due to that advantage or to his merit.

To the extent possible, I’d like Marco to think that he makes all his own breaks. The empowerment he feels from believing he is in control of his destiny is worth way more to me than the fleeting thrill he gets out of a higher class rank in first and second grade.

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17 Responses to The Kindergarten Decisions: To Redshirt or Not

  1. Jennifer says:

    Another thoughtful article, Mike. I think the best thing for parents to do is go to the kindergarten class where your child will be and observe. You will get a gut feeling about whether they’re ready. (you must go early in the year otherwise you will be observing a much older class!)

    I redshirted my daughter because she was small and had separation anxiety, and was on the borderline cutoff. I wanted her to have the strength, coordination and confidence that her classmates did – so it doesn’t always have to do with academic performance. But I know what you mean about making your own breaks. Even with the extra year she is still the smallest in her class so I guess it didn’t cut her any breaks in the end 🙂

  2. megan_hoppes says:

    I think we need to look at each child individually to see if they are ready. I just don’t mean can they count and sing the ABC’s but can they get their shovel back? The kindergarten classes do not have time for music and play. They need to meet the standards. We gave our son one more year to play and be a child. His generation will probably live to be 110 years old. It makes me wonder why we are in such a hurry to make them grow up? Send them or don’t but let’s not be so stressed about all of it! It’s like potty training–when they are ready it much easier. Quit pushing!

  3. Jennifer says:

    I forgot to mention that when I told the nursery school director that we wanted an extra year there, she said “Oh, so you’ve decided to keep your child with you an extra year.” I didn’t know what she meant. (I’m a working parent so it’s not like the child is home with me! ) Then it dawned on me that she was talking about when she turns 18 and the other kids her age were going off to college – she’ll be home with us for another year.

  4. Bethe says:

    Hi Mike: Great article. Going to tell my folks about it, too.

    I am doing a series on Kindergarten over at my site as well. I hope you & your readers will take a look. Also — read the comments – some amazing stuff from educators & parents alike.

    Kindergarten Crisis Part 1: http://bit.ly/40JWJ

    Cheers- Bethe
    http://www.grassstainguru.com

  5. noneal12 says:

    I can understand all of this when dealing with a child who has already turmed five prior to the start of the school year. What I can’t understand (hey, I grew up on the East Coast, what can I say?) is why California has this ridiculous December 1st cut off date which results in 4 year olds going off to Kindergarten. Can anyone enlighten me as to why California does not align with the rest of the country in the concept of “they have to be at least 5 when school starts”?

  6. Mike Lanza says:

    Here’s another good article on the subject forwarded to my by a reader:

    http://www.journal.naeyc.org/btj/200309/DelayingKEntry.pdf

  7. hzmm says:

    Thanks for the article and for posting it on PAMP. I think there are many of us who don’t want to redshirt, but feel the pressure.

    This article (also posted above) on reshirting was really eye-opening for me http://www.journal.naeyc.org/btj/200309/DelayingKEntry.pdf . One funny part of so many people redshirting is that the curriculum gets pushed up (so Kindergarteners having to do first grade work) both so the older kids won’t be bored in class and because it helps test scores (if your second graders are doing third grade work they have no trouble acing the second grade star test).

    I have three kids, my oldest is 8, in first grade, and has a February birthday. My second is 6 and in 1st grade and has an early October birthday. My third is 4 and starting K next year with a late October birthday. So I have personal reasons to be both frustrated and skeptical about redshirting.

    First, my oldest son has always been verbally slow and has trouble with reading. His February birthday didn’t help and I fought against holding him back as a solution (since he was fine in all other subjects). It turns out what he needed (surprise surprise) was more help using a different teaching technique than they used in school (more phonics in his case).

    My second son is probably the youngest in his class, but has never had any trouble keeping up with all the work (except handwriting). I was told over and over again that it was a mistake to put him in “early” (actually on time). The K teachers told me he wouldn’t be ready, but couldn’t explain why other than because he was young and a boy, and he would be in class with a lot of redshirted kids (so I have to redshirt him because everyone else is?).

    With my daughter no one is telling me to hold her back (because she’s a girl? because she’s tall for her age? because she’s verbal? because we moved to a school with less redshirting? I have no idea.).

    It’s so frustrating to be faced with having to make a choice based on what everyone else is doing with their kids, and to have stereotypes play such a role in how we are advised.

    If you ask me the real answer is that the policy should be all kids start kindergarten within one year (so Dec. or Sep. 2003- Dec. or Sep. 2004 birthdays would start K this year, no redshirting allowed). If kids aren’t ready they can do what we did when we were kids and get extra help. And maybe the curriculum can chill out a bit.

  8. Mike Lanza says:

    rshreeves – In fact, I do recall a study (sorry – I can’t produce the site just now) that finds higher pregnancy rates lower graduation rates for held-back kids in high school. Of course, this is undoubtedly concentrated at the lower end of socioeconomic status, but it does validate your speculation that there is a cost to being “too old” in high school.

  9. ab says:

    Mike:

    I disagree with the concept of competitive advantage, all kids will reach whatever it is they will achieve academically eventually.

    The primary issue is maturity, are they ready to go to Kindergarten. Do they cry a lot? Do they need adult supervision beyond what they can get in a large kindergarten class? Are they able to articulate what they want without hitting, crying?

    I have a child in kindergarten and many friends and colleagues with kids, I have never, ever heard of children not entering kindergarten because they would have an advantage. I think you need to talk to people who delayed entering their kids in public school before you make what are truly silly comments about competitive advantages.

    Classrooms are larger and there is more pressure on these kids at a younger age academically than when you went to kindergarten. This distracts from what kindergarten used to be, a place to become better socialized and mature prior to moving on to first grade. I might argue that these academic pressures are silly as things such as reading, writing and even addition are developmental, very few children get to college without reading.

    The only question a parent should ask is what is the role of elementary school. I would argue that it is to encourage children to become self-confident, learn how to learn and learn to love school.

    If your child is significantly less mature than his peers on entering kindergarten in terms of peer-to-peer interactions and maturity, then you are likely doing a disservice to that child in terms of building self-esteem.

    You really should look into the california education departments and california teachers association websites on readiness for kindergarten. Every single item deals with maturity, not academic or physical readiness.

    In the past, we put a lot of kids into kindergarten before they were ready, I hope that as a generation we are smarter than that. However, in reading your comments and some of these posts, I am not so sure.

  10. mom says:

    Redshirting has implications around puberty as well — girls who are redshirted and develop physically before their peers often feel self-conscious bout their bodies and are teased about them (with boys this early development is rarely stigmatized), and I think younger children (in other words, the appropriately aged children) being in class with a group of peers who are an entire year ahead of them developmentally may end up feeling pressed to become sexually active or at least sexually curious earlier.

    I have a lot of resentment toward parents who keep their children back to give them a competitive edge (very different from children who are not yet ready, but these kids are few and far between), not only because then my children feel less capable, but also because I feel they prompt my children to grow up too soon. In the “tween” era, childhood is already truncated in disturbing ways — this only adds to that.

    I think parents should be required to have medical documentation for the delay, because this “personal” choice has social consequences — impacting other children and their education.

  11. shawnita10 says:

    I sit here in complete turmoil about sending my Aug. 13 daughter to all day K at a private school. In my area, some schools offer a Aug 1 cut off date, others go with Sept 30. That in itself is confusing and the all day half day is just as inconsistent around here, depending on the district.
    My little angel went to Pre K, last year 3X a week, and learned everything they taught her, her handwriting and interest in writng sentences or labeling pictures(K curriculum) is not evident yet, but she is so interested in kids. My best friend, also an educator is holding her Aug. 13 girl back as well, she did not go to Pre K last year, and my friend feels she is not ready. My other friends with twins (two different moms, two sets of twins) one born July, the other set Aug 17, both holding and held back!! The one set of twins did two years prek, half day, then a half day of K last year, she is very shook up they will do all day 1st grade this year at age 7. I am lost, my social group is holding, all the kids from my daughters pre school meet their cut offs, latest birthdays in July, they are ALL going to K. They all feel they are ready. I think my hang up is we miss some cut offs, and that makes me second guess pushing her into an all day situation. I feel guilty and confused, but if I have her repeat Pre K, with a new teacher I wil give her 5 days, she will be with the T,TH kids and then a different group for MWF. Is that really worth her time? All the big events will be repeated weekly…..but is MWF worth her time? I really want her to enjoy her day, not be bored or lost….UHHHHHHHHH HELP! Where is the Kindergarten Fairy, please come to me so I can move forward with my life!!!!!!

  12. Mike Lanza says:

    I just published an article about our change of heart – we’ve decided to send Marco to a Young 5s program rather than kindergarten. Check it out.

  13. irish83 says:

    A child that is held back has a year stolen from them. People assume a child needs to be kept back. What if that child who is kept back performs bad in school, then they are really screwed. Parents are pretty much saying their child is not as good as other children. As far as making a child older for sports is pathetic. The only way your child can achieve is by making them older. What about college? The average studenty takes 5 year to graduate, so you are talking about a 24 year old new graduate. No child should be older than someone in the grade above them it is ridiculous. People assume their child will fail, nice faith parents. Your taking a year that can be taken back. In my school, I do not know oner kid with a summer birthday that went to college. The kids who were kept back in the beginning were the ones who did the worse and were always in trouble. I beleive a child should not haver to bare that on their age. They should be able to get a year back. It sounds crazy, but a year was taken from them, so give it back.

  14. Daniel says:

    Hi all,

    This topic recently came up as well at Newsweek’s “Nurtureshock” blog:
    http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/nurtureshock/archive/2009/09/03/should-children-redshirt-kindergarten.aspx

    The blog’s authors share very interesting findings from two recent studies:

    * The first found a startlingly clear “seasonal birth pattern” in the U.S., with wealthy, well-educated mothers typically getting pregnant in the winter months while poorer mothers get pregnant in late spring or early summer. Naturally it’s the wealthier mothers’ autumn-born kids who are more likely to be redshirted – thus introducing a dynamic where family affluence is conflated with age in documenting why kids who are among the oldest in their class often do best.

    * The second study found that the reason older kids did better in school was not a matter that they learned at a faster rate; contrary to that perception, the reason they found was that they were better prepared by their preschool, daycare, and home environment. The study’s authors couldn’t find any reason to delay kindergarten, because what is a more intellectually enriching experience than going to kindergarten?

    Anyway, something to add to the dialogue.

  15. NFMom says:

    red shirting should be done on a case by case bases. To say red shirting automatically has moral implications is ignorant. And is obvious that their kids don’t have any problems. i have two kids with fall birthdays and in california the cutt off date is Dec 2 so when they start school they will be four. One of them i will red shirt. He has had delays from the start and a genetic disorder with medical implications and significantly increases his chances for learning disabilities. School will be stressful enough for him without being the youngest in his class. My other child who is two years younger has hit all her mile stones and is even ahead in many areas. she is very small for her age but i don’t think that’s a big deal. I don’t see any reason to redshirt her. So if you have typical children just be thankful and don’t judge others.

  16. irish83 says:

    I am not from California, I am from Cleveland, Ohio. The cut off is September 30, which I believe is reasonable. I don’t believe in holding a kid back just because a parent wants to. If a child is ready than put them in the right grade. If your child has a medical disorder than that it is different. It is on a case to case basis, but give your child a chance to prove their case. I have a late birthday, as do almost all of my family, and it is a benefit in my eyes. It gives me more time to accomplish my goals. Once again to people who respond to me, I am not from California.

  17. Ann in LA says:

    When our school redshirted our kid, we did everything we could to get them to reconsider. Most importantly, we also did the research. (To no avail with the (private) school.)

    If you go to Google Scholar and look into the issue, you will find article after article (we found over 40) saying that there is no academic benefit, and in fact, if you compare two similar kids, one who got redshirted and one who didn’t, the studies show that by the end of each’s third grade year, the non-redshirted kid will have gotten further academically than the kid who was held back. There is also no long-term social benefit. (We didn’t find articles that supported the practice.)

    The studies seemed to show that the best thing for kids who are lagging was to promote them, but to give them the extra assistance they need to catch up.

    There are also studies that look at kids who are old for grade as they hit their teenage years. Those studies show that they are more likely to drop out, more likely to do alcohol and drugs, and more likely to experiment with sex than their younger peers. In other words, redshirting does have detrimental side effects as a kid ages.

    There is also a lifetime economic impact to be considered. By graduating high school a year later, older kids lose one year of lifetime income. If you tack on to that the fact that lots of young adults now take 6 years to go through college, they are taking a real hit to their cumulative income.

    I posted links and descriptions of many of the articles we found on my blog. Here’s a link to my redshirting articles:

    Square Dots: Redshirting

    For our kid, getting redshirted has had long-lasting detrimental side effects.

    Because he was already attending the school’s pre-school, he had the pain of seeing all of his friends leave for kindergarten, while he was literally stuck in a class with two year olds. He was teased by his former classmates for two years, seriously bullied when he ended up back in with those same kids the following year in a combined K-1 class, and his self-esteem was so low, he would hide behind plants in the hallway when his former classmates passed by.

    Worst of all, he got the message that he was stupid–this from a kid who we had tested (at the school’s insistence) and was found to be far from stupid.

    Because of the way our kids’ school works, we were able to get him to second grade on time. But only because we taught him to read, write, and do basic math at home (most recently spelling lessons have been the focus.) However, he never had an academic kindergarten year, which continues to place him at a disadvantage to the other kids in his grade.

    Finally, in second grade, he had his first good year, and we’ve managed to tutor him to the point where we hope he can begin to really live up to his potential in 3rd grade.